ouija-board-1890
Courtesy of Robert Murch

Ouija: Origin of Evil and the True History of the Ouija Board

Oct 21, 2016

The new movie Ouija: Origin of Evil— one of 2016's Halloween-season horror movie offerings, arriving in theaters on Friday—is just the latest example of the Ouija Board's ubiquity in pop culture. For over 100 years, the product (now owned by Hasbro) has been a staple of the spooky.

And, though it may not actually provide a link to the spirit world, it does provide an indication of what's going on in the world during its most popular moments. TIME discussed that history with Robert Murch, the Denver-based self-described “Chairman of the Board” at the Talking Board Historical Society, who has been piecing together the Ouija timeline for the last 25 years through archival research and conversations with descendants of the founders.

TIME: Where does the Ouija Board come from?

MURCH: Its origins are still shrouded in mystery, but in 1886, a few things happen. There was an Associated Press story about new talking boards taking over northern Ohio, so we know talking boards existed in Ohio, but a man named Charles Kennard, living in Chestertown, Maryland, claimed to invent the board that would become Ouija. He asked a man who worked right next to him, E.C. Reiche, a cabinet maker and coffin maker, to make a few. So Reiche [later] claims he came up with the idea, too and that Charles Kennard took it from him and went on to make it a business. So we don’t really know [who did].

It's a huge hit in Chestertown from 1886 to 1890. Then Kennard goes to Baltimore and meets Elijah Bond, a lawyer. In April 1890—we think April 25—they have a séance with Bond's sister-in-law Helen Peters, whom Bond calls a "strong medium," where they ask the board what it wants to be called. It spells out "O-U-I-J-A" and when they ask what that means, the board spells out, "G-O-O-D L-U-C-K." The building where the séance happened is still there, 529 N. Charles Street. It's a 7-Eleven.

So Elijah Bond files for the patent, and the patent office says, you have to prove it works. A grandson of Helen Peters says his grandmother told his family this story: Bond took Peters to the patent office in Washington, D.C. They show it to the first clerk, who says, 'I don’t want to be a laughing stock.' They get the chief clerk, who says, 'If that contraption can spell out my name, then you've got your patent.' Peters takes out the Ouija Board. It spells his name. The chief clerk — visibly shaken — says, 'O.K. you've got your patent.' But the patent doesn’t talk about why it works.

What was going on at the time that may have helped it become popular?

Spirit communication devices took off during the Civil War when there was massive amount of death, when every family lost a father, son, grandpa or nephew. If [victims] didn’t have ID, they couldn’t return the body. So these spirit communication devices were used to answer questions that nothing else can: My dad went away to war. Why didn’t he come back? Times of economic depression and wars seem to be when lots of "talking boards" take off. You wrote letters, waited for a response, and in the meantime, wanted some way to know if your son or father was okay. For instance, during the Vietnam War, Parker Brothers buys the Ouija Board in 1966, and then in 1967, it outsells Monopoly ($20, Amazon). That’s the only time any game has done that.

When [the Ouija Board] was invented during Victorian times, it broke a lot of rules. At a time when you weren't supposed to be alone with people of opposite sex, and people weren’t supposed to be touching, the Ouija Board was built so that you put it on your knees and your fingers would touch, so this was the ultimate date game. The original directions would say that for best results, [use with] two people — lady and gentleman preferred. That's why men wanted to buy it for women.

Get your history fix in one place: sign up for the weekly TIME History newsletter

Are there any books, movies or TV shows that changed the way that people see the Ouija Board ($20, Amazon)?

The Exorcist (1973) had a big impact on how people view the board. Earlier movies would make it a joke. It would spell something embarrassing. It’s in an I Love Lucy episode called 'The Séance.' Then in The Exorcist, it's inferred that this little girl uses the board and then becomes possessed by a demon, so this idea of demonic possession of the Ouija Board takes off and terrified America. All of the urban legends about the Ouija board — "Ouijastitions" — are in the movie Witchboard, so all of the films that feature the Ouija Board made since draw on Witchboard.

Where does the latest Ouija movie Ouija: Origin of Evil fit in?

It's a great movie. It doesn't vilify the Ouija Board—but maybe I'm too close to the subject.

TIME may receive compensation for some links to products and services on this website. Offers may be subject to change without notice.